Beachy Heads


Oh, you know what it’s like. You get out of the habit of doing something and then it just seems too effortful, too contrived to start again. This was, um, that, until I spent some time with some better photographers than I am and was spurred back to activity by their lovely snaps, which are just a few paragraphs away.

A quick round-up of the last few months would include the languorous end of that chest infection (leaving a souvenir of increased wheeziness), a big pile of work, an influx of furniture to the little house, and a bit of swimming. No Ibiza this year, and not much walking, until last week, that is.

In May I was invited to a party in Inkpen and marked the occasion by walking to it. It took three days and, apart from feeling mugged for £70 by the worst B&B I’ve ever stayed in, it was dreamy. This fired me with enthusiasm, so when an invitation to a friend’s house in Faversham arrived, with the optional extra of a trip to a Whitstable beach hut on the Sunday, I brushed off the boots and unfurled the maps.

Off I set at sparrow’s fart to Uckfield in Sussex, then set my face to north-east and kept going, over rivers, up hills, through hedges, past deer, geese, goats and on one discombobulating occasion, a kangaroo. It might have been wallaby, of course, though as I thought it was just a funny-shaped feed bin until it started hopping, I’m probably not best placed to judge. Brown, furry, hoppy – that’s your lot, I’m afraid.

Anyhow, into Kent (where, without wishing to stoke any intercountry rivalry, it should be noted the footpaths are 10,000 times better signposted than in East Sussex) and the home straights. Beauty, beauty, beauty, punctuated by thunderstorms so long and severe that laughter was the only possible response. Certainly I guffawed as I realized I was standing on the vast playing fields of Benenden School, carrying a metal umbrella near some oak trees and the thunder was so perpendicularly overhead it made a tearing sound.

To my hostess on Friday evening, who is a friend of such long standing it was only 20% embarrassing to ask if I could dump my sweaty, muddy, blackberry-stained gear in her washing machine. The extra friends arrived the next day for more walks and the trip to Whitstable where a beach hut was waiting to be draped with ladies.

V, S, E beach hut-lo

Here it is, enjoying our company.


And here WE are, enjoying each other’s company.

V, S, E looking away-lo

Now, it’s an action-style tableau, for here we are admiring the clouds over Seasalter. Everyone else on this outing was a stylist, creative director, art director and general aesthetician, so presumably are wondering what Farrow & Ball would call that colour: Wet Slate? Depressed Donkey? Soggy otter? I’m just considering a swim, hence the expression of unalloyed delight.

That flowery thing on my lap is not a novelty tea towel, nor a shirt I borrowed from Elvis in Blue Hawaii, it is the swimsuit that I am thinking of putting on.

VH in sea-lo

But then I tested the water and found that – unlike Seapoint in Dublin, where I napalmed a hangover with a heart-stoppingly cold swim a few weeks back – it didn’t give my feet migraines when they were 2cm submerged. So off I waded. You can see it was a popular choice; my friends wouldn’t even go for a paddle.

E, and V in sea-lo

And here are the swarms of paparazzi who make my life such hell.

Remember the Buncefield chemical plant fire in about 2005? The one that blackened the skies over London for days and rained respiratory nasties all over the south-east? Well, furb up your gas-masks-fashioned-out-of-wet-tea-towels – and perhaps head upwind for a day or two – because there’s an experiment going on. One that has only just occurred to me as I sit beside an unwisely provisioned suitcase on a train from Clapham Junction.

This is what happens when an arts graduate packs a bag. It’s taken a series of on-their-own-innocuous decisions to produce what may or may not be the lead story on tonight’s news. I’m taking stuff down to the little house in Wiltshire for a bit of maintenance, but the village is poorly accoutred with shops that sell reasonably priced esoteric bits and bobs for cleaning, so I’ve been shopping around in London. It’s not just Tisbury, I should add, even London has failed me once or twice. I’ve had to fill the gaps via the internet; I’m probably on a watchlist anyway.

Ok, so how has this occurred? Take paint stripper. When I were nipper you could buy bottles of it for not very much but nowadays most places only sell fancy NitroMors (or something) for the fancy price of £17.99. So I went to Wilkinson’s and found paint stripper for £3 and with a crow of delight swiftly purchased two bottles thereof. Item the first.

Item the second arose from having hit Lidl hard when they had a special offer on nice champagne. Trouble is, I don’t drink much and certainly not at home, with the result that now I’ve stockpiled enough to keep a hospitable hedge funder buoyant. My dad would love a bottle of that, went my thought process this morning – we can have it this weekend to celebrate the first springlike weather of the year. In it goes.

A month or so back my best friend from primary school asked if I wanted her old washing machine for the new house. My eyes lit up with dollar signs at the prospect of money saved. Yes, please! Not only that, but it came with the offer of a brother-in-law with a trolley and an impressive skillset to cart it into the house and plumb it in. Yes! But I don’t much care for the washing sachets they stock in our local shop, so I grabbed a box of Sainsbury’s stuff, because I love the mild smell. Item the third.

In the course of a casual chat a few nights ago, my housemate sprinkled some white powder into his shoes just before putting them on. I was agog. Wotcher doing there, fella? Boric acid, he replied. A tiny sprinkle in each shoe and your feet will never again emit the slightest pong, ‘Here, smell!’ (thrusting a trainer under my nose). Against my better judgement, I inhaled deeply as he told me they were coming up to their 7th birthday and the soles were nearly worn through. And stap me, he was right. Not the gentlest zephyr of anything at all! Well, what with all my walking, the boots could definitely do with a freshen up, but it’s difficult to get boric acid any more IRL, so I went virtual and it arrived yesterday. Exciting! Decanted into a little Tiptree hotel jam jar and popped into a shoe at the bottom of the case, down it comes.

Last summer my gooseberry, which has been the source of some anxiety, what with its being so prone to sawfly, suddenly rounded off the warmer months by incubating a new ailment. The leaves were yellowing round the edges, curling up and the fruit – so promising in June – withered and dropped. Horror! I love gooseberries! Consultation with Father, who said darkly ‘Deficiency. Potash, sounds like. You’ll have to wait for the spring.’ So the anxious months have passed and here we are at spring, but I was ready. Wilkinson’s again furnished the wherewithal, the grandly named sulphate of potash – 1.5 kilos of the stuff, which, given that I require less than half a teaspoonful for the gooseberry bush, should see me right until about 2095. So I asked my father if he wanted any and he said yes please, but just a thimbleful. Out with another little Tiptree jar (this one had honey in it, I thought honey/bees/fruit would be a useful mnemonic to distinguish it from the other pot, though I have labelled it too), in with another kind of fine white powder, and now it’s tucked away safely into the other shoe.

Time for a recap, no? In this unbelievably heavy suitcase some four inches to my right, there is alcohol, paint stripper, washing powder, boric acid and fertiliser. Oh Christ, and the jam jars, six or eight of them, pretty shapes, empty, useful, the result of giving my bedroom a massive sort-out last weekend. Shrapnel. Brilliant.

Incidentally, before I go kaboom, thank you to the friend who was reading the previous entry and noted that the bit about the food processor on top of the hall cupboard should have said ‘whither it was banished’ not ‘whence it was banished’. He is, of course, a sub-editor, and a good one who is correct in this matter. But he’s such a Luddite he sent me the rebuke by postcard, rather than ontheline, so I think I can safely mock it.

Spice girl


I thought I’d found my soulmate, I really did. This time, I thought, we’ll be together forever. You know when it just floods your whole mind so you can’t think of anything or anyone else? It colours every part of your life? It seems to fill your chest and make your heart flutter? Yeah, well, by the time that happened, on Monday, I thought enough is enough and went to the doctor. Yep, she said, ‘that is one lovely big chest infection you’ve got there’, and sent me off for antibiotics and a steroid inhaler. Tomorrow will mark our fifth-week anniversary, but I doubt we’ll make it to six. And as with the end of every liaison, I am relieved it’s over.

Still, I can’t be too negative. A good relationship teaches you things about yourself that you didn’t know. It should open up new aspects of your personality and encourage you to try new things. I’ve learned, for example, that if I go introspective, bowed down with the dreariness of life and have a cough and headache for five weeks, I should seek help. As for trying new things, well, that really has been a revelation. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you…. GINGER. A miracle of a root, a soother of aches and warmer of bodies. A delicious, invigorating, comforting cure-all that should be on every menu.

See, when I first fell ill, in the first week in January (Christ, was it really that long ago?), a friend suggested mugs of hot water, slice of lemon, whizzed-up chunk of root ginger. I couldn’t be arsed to get the food processor down from the hall cupboard, whence it was banished, unused, soon after it was purchased with fond daydreams of making quince paste, so I just cut up the ginger into julienne strips, poured on the water, drank it down and ate the ginger afterwards with a spoon.

A lovely, warming brew, I thought, antiviral, brings on a bit of a sweat, will help fight lurgy, plus it’s delicious and oddly energizing. Actually, I thought it would probably have bugger-all effect on my system but just tasted nice, until I had a cup just before bed and couldn’t sleep for hours, despite being bone-weary with coldybug. Then a few days later I had too much of it again and gave myself nausea and the runs. Golly, went my thinking, that really is quite the stimulant. And then, astonishingly, after about a week, I noticed that my legs had stopped stiffening up and aching every time I sat down for longer than 10 minutes.

This problem had been worsening over the last year, until the end of the Cotswold walk last autumn when, although I hardly admitted it to myself and certainly didn’t tell anyone else, I thought I’d have to give up walking. Stretching, massages, hot baths – nothing eased the aches for longer than an hour or so. Until The Unlooked-For Miracle, I’d had absolutely no idea ginger could do anything to muscles. And it can’t be placebo because I was concentrating too hard on detecting any effect on my noisily orchestral thorax, rather than anything further south. But one day in the office I stood up to fetch something from the printer and noticed that I hadn’t needed to trigger ignition with the words oof or ow. A minute’s mental wander back in time and I realized that legs had been gip-free for, what, days? Dunno exactly because all attention was focused elsewhere. So, having out-and-backed to the printer, transported by celebratory grands jetés, I turned to Great-aunt Internet for advice. Yup, she said, ginger is totes amaze for muscle recovery and joint aches, and a lot better for you than ibuprofen.

Inspired by this intelligence, I have started walloping into the turmeric and cinnamon too (delicious in porridge with honey stirred through it and milk) and am hoping I have fortified myself for a summer of walking. Still and all, I ain’t gone totally natural. When the chips are down, when your thorax sounds like a youth orchestra tuning up and the world has become bleached of meaning, antibiotics and steroids are your only man.

Right, division-of-labour time: I gloat; you admire. Why’s that – apart from the usual day-to-day admirability that I manifest? Because I have completed my tax return! Not filed it or paid any money, mark you, but completed it. And the feeling is exactly as the ads promised: one of lightness, smugness and glee. Whoever came up with that marketing scheme is a genius because not only is it true, unlike many marketing ideas (how does one recognise a feeling of being sooo Money Supermarket, for example?), it also takes something life-draining and turns it wholeheartedly upbeat.

This is a leaf from a book that could have been usefully thumbed by the young men who turned up at the house on Sunday. Irritatingly, their knock coincided with the imminent climax of Obesity: A Year to Save My Life USA, which I was using as a backdrop to soothing the morning aches of cold virus slash mild hangover. It was a double episode, nearly two hours of a fat bloke called Mikey being shouted at by a buff bloke called Gerry and I couldn’t believe I was about to miss the grand unveiling of half the man Mikey used to be.

The opening front door revealed a chilly-looking pair of skinny evangelicals. No idea what church they came from but the leaflet one of them held out was as stripped of joy as the reps were of flesh. The cover featured a line drawing of a woman with her face in her hands beneath the legend ‘When Will The Suffering End?’. Sorry, give me a second to regroup here. You’ve knocked on the door of a smiling stranger to ask them ‘When will the suffering end?’ Really? Why not have a wee into my kettle while you’re here? I read somewhere that those Nigerian spam mails are meant to be ludicrously obviously fake so that only really thick, suggestible people respond – the ones most likely to wire their savings to a crook in Nairobi. By that process, this church only wanted the most depressed, frightened, browbeaten types, which isn’t really for me. Balloons, kittens, a cartoon penguin wearing a sombrero, then yeah, sign me up. But face in hands, crushed by life, yearning for death? Hmm, not so much.

So, lads, next time you have a branch meeting, why not suggest revising your outreach material? Because when the tax office sounds more fun than your church, it’s time to ask some searching questions. Or at least get better branding.

Winter clean


Any year that doesn’t start with winter vomiting bug is all right by me. In fact, Christmas may have been a sparkling wonderland of roasting meats and children’s laughter in other houses, but not in mine. Instead of days of enervating enforced inactivity, mine was spent helping my father get his flat repainted at the behest of the landlord, aka smoothing ruffled feathers of two elderly gents. ‘But why does he want it painted in the middle of winter?’ went my father’s not unreasonable wail; ‘I’ve got someone in and he can only do it during university holidays,’ came the cogently argued response. This exchange, which has been repeated with only small variations since October, elicited sympathetic clucks to whoever was addressing me as I lugged wardrobes, hauled bookcases, hoovered ropes of cobwebs and scrubbed down walls.

The lanky painter, a delightfully otherworldly teen, turned up two days late and made up the time by doing a terrible job. But he spiked our guns with smiling biddability, listening to opera and displaying not the slightest inkling of his incompetence. Bless. He only did about 1.5 days’ work but the landlord is delighted that some of the flat has been done; my father because he hopes that will be enough to leave him in peace, and the undergrad, pfft, he pocketed a few quid and got away with murder.

Once that excitement was over, I put on the same dusty jeans and jumper and went to work on the little house. My father heroically returned the favour, carrying a stepladder up the street; tactfully dialling down my more extravagant ideas and replacing the bathroom light switch. Two days earlier I’d smashed the whole fitting by teetering on tiptoe on the edge of the bath and letting it slip from outstretched fingers onto the tiled floor – but replacing that is a whole other day’s wrong size of screwdriver.

Puppy love


‘Oh Christ, where’s the little fucker gone now?’ That howl is the sound of my usually non-sweary father taking a puppy for its second – and probably last – ever walk. It was good to hear my father revisit his National Service days.

We’d started aglow with virtue and good cheer, helping out a local lady who’d recently been felled by a stroke. Her daughter, in a bizarre logic-fail, decided that what her largely immobile and convalescent mother needed while living alone was an un-house-trained puppy. Not a very big puppy, certainly, but one that, like all puppies, needs to be walked. This is where my dog-loving father entered the frame, about a week ago, offering to take the boisterous scrap and trot it round a field, on a lead. The hound, a shih-tzu, is only four months old and had clearly never been taken for a saunter before. It took him a while to get the hang of it, but some kind of doggie instinct seemed to wake up and he had a lovely time. Last weekend, buoyed by that earlier success and bulked out with another human and the much loved Rosie who’s about 12 years the houndlet’s senior, my father felt the pack was big enough to take Bailey out properly.

Bailey was not singing from the same sheet, quickly earning the descriptor that my father sent rolling around the valley, along with some other fruity terms that made me want to snort and text my brother. The dog couldn’t understand kissing gates – fair enough, they’re tricky if don’t understand reaching your goal by any but the most direct route. But he also wouldn’t go through a five-bar gate that was opened wide and, judging by the mud and pats, regularly let herds of Friesians go lumbering through. That was when it got really shouty.

The sight of that tiny dog, standing in the middle of the gateway, refusing to follow us and running away every time either of us went near him, became less pitiful and more annoying with every minute that passed. The sun sank lower in the sky. Rosie wandered off and found a half-rotted rabbit’s leg to chew unnoticed. I wondered how bad I would really feel telling the owner her dog had run away (answer: not in the slightest).

We finally caught him and, when Rosie had finished exploiting our inattention by rolling in badger shit, we tied the two dogs together by one lead, giving them about a yard of slack between them, and let them trot along happily, Rosie showing Bailey how to get through gates and Bailey being gentlemanly about the unholy stink pulsing off his new friend’s fur. Both in disgrace, they travelled the mile and a half home in the boot. Bailey was given a warm bath and had the mud washed off with posh shampoo by his owner; Rosie got Fairy Liquid and the water butt.

The community spirit is welling within my breast these days. It’s always been there, of course, but lately, and in two locations, It’s become what oil prospectors might call a gusher. The people around my little houseen and an old friend from primary school who has returned to the village and moved in a few doors down are taking up much of my attention in Wiltshire, and then in London, where people are more circumspect, I have been meeting neighbours the traditional way: under cover of the misdirected parcel.

That’s how I met Colin from across the road, a relationship that has been reinforced by my landlord, whom I suspect of having a slight boy crush on Colin, particularly after the panicky phone call – ‘Colin! Thank God! Have you got a small angle-grinder?’ – that resulted in such damage to the kitchen floor. Anyway, the first gossamer threads of acquaintance were spun after Colin took in a parcel of mine a few months back. I returned the next morning with a gift of plums (themselves part of a gift from Cyril four doors down) and that, along with DIY SOS, was enough to seal the deal.

Last night I passed the favour on by dealing with four ENORMOUS packages that had been delivered to us on account of next door being out. The lightest was 19kg, and addressed to a ‘Harry’ so I went round and left a note. No sign of anyone, but as Tomasz Schafernaker finished telling the nation to wrap up warm, there were telltale thumpings through the wall. Round I beetled once more. The door was answered by a larky young sprig in tracky bottoms and a vest cut in such a way that an evening at the gym was in the front of my mind. I explained that this ‘Harry’ was welcome to collect the parcels but as the heaviest was 27kg, I couldn’t help. Not a problem – suddenly an even more strapping gym bunny filled the doorway and blocked the light. ‘Oh, my,’ I may have squeaked. And then, dammit, yet another vested vision materialized, this one from the kitchen. Now, I’m not really a fan of the ripped gym-boy, and I have long outgrown the 20-something, but heavens to Betsy and lawks a mercy, sometimes you just get caught by surprise.

Off I scuttled, down their path and up mine, having ordered the-lads-too-young-to-remember-Communism to put on shoes because they’d catch their deaths (oh, well done me). And round they came, like a load of marines, in their straining singlets, to pick up the heavy packages and present me with a bottle of wine. It was dark enough to hide my rosy glow but not dark enough to hide the simper. Still, at least I didn’t giggle. Oh God, I didn’t giggle, did I?


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